Rating: 4 stars
Buy the Book: Amazon
Summary: "And so it came to pass...
Through science, faith and force of will, the Harmonics carved out for themselves a society that they conceived of as perfect. Diverse peoples held together by respect for each other and the prospect of swift punishment if they disobeyed their laws. Fertile land that embraced a variety of climates and seasons. Angels to guard the mortals and mystics to guard the forbidden knowledge. Jehovah to watch over them all...
But an age of corruption has come to the land, threatening their peace and placing the Samarians in grave danger. Their only hope lies in the crowning of a new Archangel. The oracles have chosen for this honor the angel named Gabriel, and further decreed that he must first wed a mortal woman named Rachel.
It is his destiny and hers. And Gabriel is certain that she will greet the news of her betrothal with enthusiasm, and a devotion to duty equal to his own.
Rachel, however, has other ideas."
Review: Let me be clear: At no point in this novel does anyone hold a glowing blue stone and a feather and dramatically dip their head backwards. It never happens. Not once. Never. Why that image is depicted on the cover of this book is beyond me.
I almost didn't read this book because of that cover, actually, being the cover-snob that I am. I'm glad I consented, because the story inside is worth it. But, man, that cover haunted me during my entire read.
Okay, I'll try to get past the cover and focus on the story. (No promises.)
Something about the way Shinn writes really resonates with me. I find myself completely absorbed in her novels. The worldbuilding is so complete, so rich, and so detailed that I loose myself within her fictional worlds, without even realizing that I'm lost. She's so good at creating and communicating to her readers the worlds she envisions that I hardly have time to marvel at her craft, because I'm too busy envisioning the tapestries and feeling the stone walls, hearing the flap of wings and the jingle of slave chains, and feeling the dust on my face after days of rough travel. This world is gritty and shinning and deceptive, all without trying to be. It just is. Really, her books are worth reading for the worldbuilding alone. Happily, there is even more good to be found within these pages.
Gabriel needs to find his bride before the next annual Gloria when he is to take his place as archangel. Though he has been told the name of the person who Jovah (their deity) has picked to be his bride and the world's Angelica (Rachel) he cannot find her. As the Gloria nears and Gabriel becomes more and more frustrated and frantic, he accidentally stumbles across Rachel in the house of a wealthy merchant, where she has been kept as a slave in brutal conditions for the past five years. Her years of struggle and despair have left her hard and bitter, and she is about as far from Angelica material as it is possible to be. Or so Gabriel believes.
From what I've read from Shinn, including this book, she seems to be a very character driven writer. This story features the main characters of Gabriel and Rachel, angel and human, connected by Jovah, and absolutely despised by the other. At least at first.
Watching their relationship change and morph into one of understanding and mutual respect was slow and difficult, but ultimately satisfying. Gabriel is impatient and tends to see the world in black-and-white; Rachel is extremely stubborn, to the point of obstinance. They argue and make mistakes, but the moments of tenderness between them, rare though they are, are sweet and satisfying. I liked their relationship, but wished they could have made more personal, individual growth by the end of the story. Rachel was her own worst enemy a lot of the time, and I was afraid that she hadn't realized her own tendencies to sabotage her relationships by the end. Gabriel made his share of mistakes, but he seemed to become more humble by the end. I wished for a little more, though.
The story's plot is one of religion and politics. In this world, they are one and the same. The religion aspect wasn't preachy or irritating or overly complicated. It was just a large part of this world, and was presented as such. I loved the discussions on faith and belief and the nature of God. The only thing that kind of bothered me was the overt use of Biblical names: Places are called Mount Sinai, Bethel, Jordana, The Plain of Sharon, etc. People are called Jethro, Jeremiah, Daniel, Obediah, Magdalena, Naomi, Raphael, etc. I get that religion is a big deal in this book, but this religion isn't Christianity. The character names and setting names were too reminiscent to the Old Testament for me to divorce the story completely from it, and so it often felt like an alternate history instead of a fantasy. It was jarring. On the plus side, the story's politics were fascinating. Economics vs. morality was the main argument, and as its one that often happens in our own world, I found the debates and discussions to be fascinating. The plot probably could have moved a little faster, but I didn't mind the slower pace.
Besides the overuse of Biblical terminology, I have two other grievances that I need to air: first, the tendency to tell the reader what they're about to read, and, second, the lack of motive by the villain.
First, telling the reader what they're about to read. Multiple times in this book I would come across something like this: "Rachel and Gabriel had been getting along so well for so many days in a row, that their next argument was as surprising to them as it was ugly." And then we would have a ten page scene showing Rachel and Gabriel together, which ultimately climaxed with them in a big, fat fight. The scene was gripping and important, but it would have packed much more of a punch if I hadn't already been told that they were about to fight. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but it made me wrinkle my nose. (Note: I did not notice this tendency in her Elemental Blessings series, so maybe it's just this book/series?)
Second, the villain's motive. The villain's main motive is clear: power. But his motive for targeting Rachel was much less clear. I can't talk about this without being spoilery, so I'll just say that certain events left me scratching my head. If I had more insight into the villain's head I would have given this book a much higher rating. The Biblical terminology and the telling-the-reader-what-they're-about-to-read thing may both be minor, preferential issues. But this one felt like a grave oversight, and left a big mar on an otherwise wonderful book.
I'm still a huge Sharon Shinn groupie, though, and will happily read her other novels. I somehow always feel smarter after reading a Shinn book. I'm so happy to have found her work, as her worldbuilding and character building are so exemplary. I'm curious, if you've read the other books in this series, how do you think they compare? I'm wondering if I should continue this series or move on to her Twelve Houses series next...
Bottom Line: Those who like character-focused fantasy novels and also enjoy a strong undercurrent of religion and politics in their books will definitely enjoy this read. Even if you hate fantasy and religion and politics, this book is probably worth the read just for the worldbuilding.